Anna booked four nights in North Norfolk at a delightful 17th Century cottage. We’d been to Suffolk and Norfolk in September last year and a return was planned. We loaded up the car with groceries and bicycles and headed south. The location isn’t too far from York (170 miles) but the road network after Newark and the A1 deteriorates into single carriageways and a lot of roundabouts. (Memo to Boris: forget about HS2 and give East Anglia a road network.)
If that’s slowing your progress then when you add all the artic trucks shipping all the veg that’s grown on the wide open and flat fields in the locality it can be even tougher going. The weather was overcast with heavy downpours, our miserable spring and summer was continuing. However Wells-next-the-Sea was reached and in the indifferent weather our legs were stretched and childhoods were relived with ice cream! We had time to kill before being allowed to check in and so we spent some time wandering around.
As a town Wells is some way from the sea but connected by a winding passage through the sandbanks. We strolled up to the beach itself:
Back toward the small fishing port the sights were very twee and attractive. The whole town was served by tidal waters and it was surprising how quickly the tide came in when the turn came.
However, it was time to go and so we drove along single track roads to reach Great Walsingham, about 5 miles south of the coast. The house was a delight:
The countryside is mainly flat although there are lots of little rises and falls. It is an unspoilt part of the country with no industry other than farming. Even the coast doesn’t seem to have anything like a commercial fishing operation. Tourism is the money earner and the relatively unspoilt and undeveloped nature of the area has great appeal. I felt it was the type of place you really could unwind.
On the drive north from York we spoke to a very old friend on the car phone. We said we were going up to Hadrian’s Wall and then onto Scotland. When we threw in that we were both taking bicycles there was a short silence when he contemplated Anna dealing with inclement weather and lots of hills. When we added that we were staying at a Youth Hostel he gasped and we had a longer silence! I wondered whether he thought we were broke or had lost our minds.
We went up to Hadrian’s Wall in January and stayed at a plush B&B. It was part of a trip that saw us on the guest list at The Sage in Gateshead for Brandy Clark, who’s concert I reviewed for Country Music People. However over and above our time in the city we’d enjoyed our walk along the wall and made a decision to return.
Hadrian was the Roman Emperor at the time the wall was built AD 122 to AD 128. This 73 mile construction stretched along the top of England to ostensibly control or keep out the Ancient Britons (Scots to you and me) on the north side of the wall. This 10 foot wide by 15 foot high wall was built of stone apart from the western end which was turf. The Roman soldiers, all 15,000 of them built it. Along its length were stationed garrisons of French, Belgian, Spanish or Dutch ‘Roman’ soldiers. The wall was a partial barrier that controlled immigration, implemented customs and stopped the Picts stealing cattle.
Today the wall is more of an outline. Over the years the stone was taken by farmers, house builders etc and little remains today.
However there is an industry today in restoring the sites and archaeological digs. This has proved vital for understanding British history and for tourism in Northumberland. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site not least because it was the most northerly border in the Roman Empire. In January we walked on the wall but longed for accommodation not so isolated. The Youth Hostel offered a great cafe, a pub next door and modern accommodation.
The hostel had become a victim to Covid-19 and so there was no communal sitting area inside the building, no access to the kitchen and no furniture in the room other than the bed!
Fortunately there were few problems with the pub next door and I made sure Anna ate heartily to build up her energy for tomorrow’s velo expedition to Hexham.
The next day there was a difficult conversation that started with the declaration that she wasn’t going outside to ride her bike because she didn’t have any leggings. With the promise of several mintoes and chocolate limes she was lured out of the room and onto her bicycle. (I did point out later that we never met another cyclist wearing leggings).
The ride to Hexham was lovely: little traffic, splendid vistas of lakes, rivers, forests, gardens and small settlements. Anna was exceptional applying herself to the job in hand and the promise of lunch in the bustling market town of Hexham.
As tour leader I rewarded myself in Hexham with some Sticky Toffee pudding.
By the time we got back to the hostel we’d ridden 32 miles and climbed 704m (2,300 feet), which by any standards is a brilliant effort by Anna. It was a quick turn round at the hostel with a shower and then out to the world class museum a mile away at Vindolanda. This was a fort at the time of the Wall. The settlement was for soldiers but also many Britons who lived outside the fortress walls and provided the many services the soldiers needed. Nowadays it’s a fabulous museum. Much of our ancient history is deduced by studying what archaeologists can excavate. This is mainly items that can survive the centuries under the soil. Written history is very scarce and the earliest writing isn’t a reliable guide to the facts! (Often the early writing are accounts of events commissioned by important people. As they say ‘the victors get to write history’ even though it may not be true).
At Vindolanda there are discoveries of written remnants, not of history but mundane instructions or communications that show how the Romans conducted themselves. The writing is in Latin. These are amongst the first known pieces of writing in the country. (There were discoveries recently in London dated back to AD 43).
Later that evening we drove out to Corbridge for a meal. The next morning we were heading to Kelso in the Scottish borders. As we had time on our hands we visited Kielder Water. This is a man made reservoir opened in 1981. Around the reservoir are some holiday cabins along with some great walks and bike rides. The road to and from the estate seemed empty with the occasional holiday maker.
The roads through the Borders to the settlements was winding and empty. Much to my frustration the most direct route was closed for road works and we detoured westward. These empty roads are attractive to motorbikes and the occasional convoy of fast cars. We eventually arrived at Hawick and found a larger road to Kelso.
Here we met up with Peter and Jude who’d cycled down from Dalkeith to join us for a spot of lunch. They were on a tandem! Peter is an old friend, he introduced me to cycle touring. We did our first trip in 1994 from St Malo to Bordeaux. I forgot to take a photo of them on the bike but I did take the camera into the Gents…
After our lunch and their departure (to find a train station to get back to Edinburgh) we visited Flowers Castle, the home of the Duke of Roxburgh. This is within Kelso.
In Kelso we checked into our B&B. Sadly there were no bunks this time as it would have been Anna’s turn to be close to the ceiling. As the day ended we went for a stroll.
The host at the B&B didn’t look like a David Bowie fan but had several books on the man. A conversation started over breakfast and it turned out that Robin was a fanatic. He had all the biographies and albums. He also had all the boxsets, out takes and knew the minute details on the Thin White Duke’s life. Very impressive. His other “Mastermind’ specialist subjects would have included Cockney Rebel and Mott The Hoople. Needless to say breakfast lasted an hour and half as we also ruminated on the merits of spam, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and his succession of American guests. He was a wonderful mimic to add to his stories. You’re thinking that he’ll be talking about me to other guests, I doubt it. We sat there quietly enjoying the ‘show’.
When we departed he gave me an alternative version to the released ‘Young Americans’ by Bowie on CD. If it’s as good as I hope then it may end up as a ‘Record Of The Week’ elsewhere on the site.
The next day despite some half hearted protests we found our way back to Hawick for a little retail therapy at one of the cashmere mill shops. We spent £194 and I’d like to declare that I got a lambs wool hat for £9.99 to keep me quiet (fat chance of that).
Returning via Melrose we had a splendid lunch of halibut sat on samphire and peas with tortellini filled with crab meat and took some photos of the abbey.
So back in Kelso a man walks into a fishing tackle store to discuss a problem with his jetty and crapping ducks. In fairness the staff were very obliging and didn’t flinch when I asked them for their cheapest fishing line to string along the top of the fence to stop ducks perching. The little blighters are very dirty and the jetty looks appalling unless you can deter them from visiting.
On our last day there were a few more photos of Kelso:
We had wandered around the town trying to find a pub for a drink: it was not easy. The pubs only had space outside for drinkers whilst any available space inside was reserved for diners. You’ll be relieved to know we did find one in the end that was empty; there was good reason for that if you saw the decor but the pint of Belhaven slipped down lovely.
Our drive back to York was via Alnwick. At the old railway station there is a famous second hand book shop called ‘Barter Books’ we popped in to buy some treasure before heading home to York.
Alnwick, back in England was busy with tourists. In contrast our time in Scotland had been one where tourists were a lot thinner on the ground. The Scottish lockdown has been more severe. It has had a profound affect on the local economy. I hope it hasn’t permanently damaged the businesses affected.
If the truth was told I’d had enough of riding my bike. Two weeks without a day off was sufficient. I was going well: no complaints with the butt, back or legs but I was tired. My fitness was impressive and I must say that eating more and more regularly was a big contributor as obvious as it sounds. My Australian warm up in March had provided a base of fitness. I checked out of the Ibis into a deserted Antwerp. I started to think that it must be another day off for the natives in Belgium. This is the second largest city in the country with half a million residents. At around 8am they must have been in bed. The streets and buses were empty. Maybe the Belgians have a leisurely start to the day?
I took a few snaps of the city. Note the crowds.
I was heading north east again to Europoort. This is a conurbation with a number of large chemical plants and warehouse facilities. Hidden somewhere in there are some jetties for ferries; one of them was for Hull. The literature says it’s Rotterdam but that’s like calling Stansted and Gatwick London airports. The route necessitated crossing a number of ‘fingers’ of land by bridges.
The first chore of the day was finding some breakfast. The Ibis hotel was unable to serve anything due to the resurgence of Covid-19 meaning they had to desist. As I trundled through the side streets I eventually spied a bakery and bought some pastries. Much to my surprise about Belgium again, was that they did a passable sausage roll.
Soon I was out of Belgium into Holland. The usual clue in continental Europe that you’ve crossed a border is the change in the preponderance of number plates of a certain nationality into another. This is how I worked out I was in The Netherlands. The other signal is that you often get a sign advising drivers that the speed limits are different.
(I hope they are employing a couple of hundred people in Brussels and Strasbourg, as I write, on an initiative to harmonise car registration plates and speed limits).
The terrain didn’t change between the two countries and the road layouts and cycle paths didn’t change. However I was now moving into the coastal countryside and it became increasingly windy as the sea breezes picked up. The infrastructure still remained immaculate for cyclists who like dedicated facilities. There really wasn’t a lot to see and whilst I was well ahead of any embarkation time I wanted to be there in good time.
Here’s a tell tale signal that it was getting windy: wind turbine farms.
Holland is a busy country and there is never an escape for too long from the traffic and housing but I did pass many fields full of cereals, probably in fields below sea level. For all the bustling settlements I ended up failing to find some lunch. As a consequence I ate all my remaining biscuits (Hobnobs), energy bars, crisps and sweets that I had lurking in my panniers.
Another sign that it was coastal were the working boats.
No I didn’t stop for the fish and chips! I seldom think they’re edible outside of Yorkshire and by this stage I was closing in on Europoort.
The Dutch and Belgians do like a brick. Are they really cost effective solutions for a road?
The final few miles were slightly worrying because the route to Europoort meant crossing stretches of water from peninsula to peninsula. I found the following sign and started to be encouraged that I was going in the right direction.
This may seem that I had the direction sorted, I didn’t. The signs at the bottom of the hill pointed in the wrong direction for the port! I stopped to ask a cycling couple and he was not only uninformed but made me anxious by suggesting I’d need to get a boat to cross banks. He was wrong; such stupid talk can be quite perplexing.
Eventually I found the relevant bridge and closed in on the giant chemistry set of Europoort.
The total mileage from Carcassonne was now just over 1,000 miles. I could see the P&O ferry and even found a sign. However it took a long time with the road system to pull up to the desk at the embarkation point.
With Anna’s forwarded email I was quickly ushered through. The sailing was still about four hours away but I could board immediately. I was so pleased as I was ready for a shower and a sit down with a pint of Guinness.
The ferry was not remotely half full. A chat with a P&O employee suggested that the Zeebrugge ferry won’t run again this year. I’d be surprised if it ran again ever as it was never busy during pre-Coronavirus times. With the ferry so empty you notice the staff more. The Filipinos were like little birds – happy and chatting in Tagalog to each other. However, they weren’t all very attentive and some management or demanding workload might have helped them concentrate on the passengers. There is nothing sadder than an empty ship and staff with little to do standing around.
I did my usual unplanned trick of dining and then going back to the cabin to find it impossible to keep my eyes open past 9pm. I slept 10 hours.
Entry in the UK requires completion of a Declaration about your health and where you’d been. I was queuing at Reception to use their iPad to complete the form. (I’d run out of data on my own mobile). This task made me late to to disembark but eventually I rolled off and made it to Passport Control.
The ride back home was starting with Hull rush hour traffic at 7.30 in the morning; none of this Belgium hanging about. In fact the traffic stayed with me all the way until I got past Market Weighton. One of my usual observations on returning to the UK is that I live on a very busy and populated island.
Before Escrick I met up with Anna who’d cycled out to meet me and we cycled home together. That was the end of the latest adventure and I knew I wouldn’t be sat on a bike for a week at least.
Lastly, thank you for your comments and for simply reading my blog. It is a joy to write this stuff up and think that someone somewhere is checking out my journey.
Today was going to be a day of a big push, as if the other days had been a doddle. Antwerp was in a straight line to Europoort, Rotterdam and I knew that if I reached it I’d have a good chance of reaching the ferry for the Tuesday night sailing.
I was up early and away before 8am, I left the campsite quietly. I like the thought of all the other sleepy campers waking up to peer at my space noting I was long gone. It wasn’t long before I reached the border and said goodbye to France. The plan was to continue along the Meuse river to Namur. From here I’d head in a north easterly direction through Belgium. It was a cool and overcast morning: no complaints as flat and cool is a winning combination for making progress.
The river seemed to be widening and the altitude fell to 80 metres. There were still plenty of weirs and locks for barges to negotiate. I say barges because a few commercial boats were now to be found as we getting into Belgium.
The first large town to come into view was Dinant. It looked a resort kind of place all nicely perched alongside the river. I looked around for a bike shop or even some breakfast but I had come up against the dreaded ‘Monday closing’ situation with Belgium. It wouldn’t be a distortion to suggest that whenever I’ve been in Belgium I cannot remember, apart from Bruges and Brussels, all the shops ever being open. If they’re not shut they all open late at about 9.30am. Hopeless.
A popular Ives household pastime is naming famous Belgians. No, Hercules Poirot is a fictional one, it’s not an easy game although Eddie Merckx quickly comes to mind. I can only think of one popular music artist. However, born in 1814 in Dinant is Adolpho Sax. He invented the saxophone in 1840 and the rest, as they say, is rock n’ roll. Needless to say Adolpho didn’t create this masterpiece on a Monday.
The cycle path had been asphalt all the way from Sedan but now I hit some loose gravel and some ‘pavé’ for sections. The pavé can be translated as cobbles or ‘f@*king cobbles’ as I was heard to opine to another couple of tourers coming toward me on the bone jangling surface. They laughed at my observation. I was also worried that the vibration would make my rear wheel worse.
It was still an attractive ride and flat as a pancake. Because the settlements were closer it was more interesting. Soon I was in Namur and at the end of the path (for me). I found a bike shop that Google suggested was open but it wasn’t and now after a sandwich and a coffee in the centre headed across country to Belgium.
Belgium and Holland have a developed infrastructure for cycling and there are lots of routes. All these routes are denoted by numbers signs. I don’t think I got a lot wrong but having a map of the routes and directions would have helped. Trying to work all this out on a small mobile phone screen is not ideal.
One thing that surprises me is the number of serious lycra clad road cyclists, that is, not kids, commuters or elderly shoppers, who use these paths. The routes are bedvilled with tight corners and junctions. To add to this is the height of the kerbs you regularly have to ride up over. I ride a 28mm wide tyre and it was just enough in most instances to achieve the task, but on a road bike with something thinner it is a crashing affair. It may also explain why 28mm wide tyres are becoming increasing popular on road bikes.
I was using the routes and my Sat Nav programmed with the large towns ahead. When I got within a mile or so I’d re-programme to another town. By doing it at this point I’d not be taken into the centre of the town. As you can see there was bright blue skies by the time of the afternoon and I was going well.
It was still on my mind to get the rear wheel fixed. I’d been lucky so far but for how much longer? About 40 miles from Antwerp I cycled through a small settlement called Bierbeek and found an open bike store. I say ‘store’ because it was a splendid retail outlet with all types of bikes. The owner/mechanic was much in demand as mainly pensioners looked pensively at their steeds and he advised on various solutions. Queuing outside the store was the order of the day and eventually my turn came up. I was now in a Flemish speaking part of Belgium and felt explaining things in English would be better understood. This is because if you don’t speak a language other than Flemish then you’re limited outside of the region.
He tipped the bike with all the luggage attached upside down and took off the wheel to fix it. He was helping me as regards the job of unpacking the bike but in doing so he trapped my phone/camera in my handle bar bag and so no piccies! In the time he took to fix the wheel, sell inner tubes, bike locks and deal with queue hopping pensioners I looked at his selection of bikes for sale. It seems clear that the Belgians will spend proper money on a bike. The electric bikes were expensive but all robustly made and brands I respected. It also brought to mind all the teenagers I saw riding bikes. In the UK it would be on an old mountain bike or a sleek lightweight carbon road bike. Here they rode ‘sit up and begs’ with no loss of credibility. They were forms of regular unsexy transport and had to be fit for purpose, reliable and suitable to cope with the terrain.
It seems the cycle routes liberated teenage girls. They bowled along zooming past me in their glad rags on these classic bikes. Not only was the route traffic free but they obviously felt safe even as the evening wore on.
Anyway I smarted a little at €30 for a new spoke and the wheel being true’d. It must have taken him 10 minutes actual time doing the job. Next door there was a supermarket and I bought some pastries to help me get through to Antwerp. Now I needed to get going.
The route was laid out beside canals or rail tracks as I started to close in on the city. It was getting on. I’d actually ride for over 10 hours today and get to the hotel at some time past 8pm. These routes get more demanding from a navigation point of view and more interesting as you enter residential areas. The outskirts of Antwerp eventually gave way to a busy built up area. The type of cyclists changed, not least the large number of ultra-orthodox jews. These were youngish bearded men in black morning coats and hats who pedalled as fast as the other travellers. A quick bit of research shows this community lives in the centre of the town, which was where I was headed.
Eventually I got to the Ibis Budget and asked for a room (€51). There was a little surprise that I hadn’t booked in advance. However, I felt confident that there would be rooms at the time of the pandemic, I was correct. So a quick shower and then out into the centre for some food. There must have been some further lockdown in Belgium as there was no inside dining as well as the obligatory masks inside premises. It was too cold to sit outside: I bought some fast food and ambled back to the hotel and spoke to Anna. She needed to book a ferry and I had one more very long ride to Europoort.
Encouraged by finding a new way north I left the campsite and went to find the Meuse river. I didn’t find a path until I got to Sedan. Being Sunday I wondered if that would increase or decrease the folk I found using the path: I knew it would make finding food more tricky.
It was nice to stay in the same gear for a period of time and look around as I kept up a decent pace (12.7mph). There was quite a selection of wildlife beside the river (including a Yorkshireman).
The weather was kind and the going easy. I saw a variety of people on bikes: elderly couples, families with trailers pulling their smallest family member, sleek lycra warriors on top of the range road bikes and a lot of electric bikes.
I saw few boats on the water, maybe a few cabin cruisers but like most European waterways they are now given over to tourism with few barges. The sad reality is that the consumption of fossil fuels by barges and the slow speed of transportation has left this solution obsolete as cost effective. I think the only chance it has of being competitive is the movement of aggregates or other exceptionally bulky material.
By the middle of the day I was famished but after drawing a blank in most places I found some sustenance in Bogny-sur-Meuse. It was now very hot and I managed to find a corner of a table out of the sun!
Just along from here I heard another crack. Another spoke broke on the back wheel. From never having had this problem before to now have two in short succession was troubling. Fortunately the wheel didn’t bow as badly this time and would roll. As I’m inspecting my problem a man above me worked out what had befallen me and wanted to help.
He was above me because he was sat in his garden looking out onto the river. He went to fetch some pliers to cut off the flapping broken spoke. After doing the task he was joined by another neighbour who started chatting about whatever. They fell into a conversation and so without any profuse thanks or swapping home addresses I just threw my leg over the top tube and pedalled off. This type of no fuss (or interest) about the French is an admirable quality.
I took out one of the rear brake blocks to aid the rotation. I now just hoped it could see me until the next bike shop. As always there were campsites dotted along the length of the river and I had one in mind near Givet, on the Belgian border. After 80 miles this small site, that appeared to be like someone’s front garden, came into view. It’d do at €7.50 for the night. I cleaned up and then cycled a mile into the centre of Givet for some lamb shoulder and couscous.
The route was windy and despite the 80 miles ridden I hadn’t gone that far north. Despite that situation then if you’re thinking about cycling in Europe for the first time and heading from Belgium or Holland to France this route will take a lot of beating.
It seemed an idyllic day for being lazy in an interesting town but the road beckoned and I turned left out of the campsite and started to climb on the ‘Voie Sacrée’. Verdun, at the other end of this road, is etched into the French psyche as a place where in WW1 the efforts and soul of the nation were poured to fight the Germans as they advanced south west. The price in terms of lives was immense as both armies fought over a small front and in one or another way shelled the terrain to be as desolate and crater like as a lunar landscape. It looks that way even today. The official estimate is that both armies lost 300,000 dead during this two year conflict. This road was the route over which the French despatched resources toward the front. I thought about the young inexperienced soldiers going toward Verdun anxious about the war ahead and the tired, mutilated or dead who were coming back in the same trucks. In reality a desperate ribbon through which to pour life.
In lovely sunshine I got to Verdun for lunch. I have been here before a couple of times before and visited the main battlefields including a superb museum. The Meuse river flows through the centre of this now tourist town. After a bite I continued along the Meuse. The river formed a natural front between the WW1 armies including the Americans who latterly helped the French hold the Germans and their allies.
A day like this can be a little dull. The towns are spread far apart and whilst the open, mainly arable countryside is attractive then it does start to become less engrossing during a seven hour bike ride.
As usual I was listening to music or a podcast. I had made my mind up to get home now. I was strong but tired but feared the ride back through Belgium. One of my later discoveries in life is that the land of Hercules Poirot is not flat: in fact it’s bloody hilly. I was not looking forward to severe climbing again.
My routine was to get a hot lunch and then stop at a boulangerie or supermarket to get a baguette, something to spread on it and a tomato. When I visit these stores I’m still tickled by the fact that the French break up the multipacks.
Monuments continued to be placed along the road.
I started to close in on Douzy, a town close to a larger town called Sedan. It had been a long day and by the end of this day I would have clocked up a total of 736 miles without a day off. There was a campsite that looked very much like a resort park. It was beside a lake and lots of teenagers were leaping into it and having a noisy yet terrific time. I went into Reception and thought I’d be a novelty as a cyclist. Not so. After my usual willing butchery of French the millennial behind the counter said “we can speak English if you like?” It transpired that there was a popular cycling route beside the Meuse and many cycle tourers stayed here overnight. On this route you followed the river where there was a path but otherwise you ambled along on smaller roads near it. I had taken the main road, which was quite reasonable apart from one memorably long steep climb out of Moulins-Saint-Hubert. My route did have the benefit of occasional sights such as this mural in Mouzon.
So I was camping with other cyclists and there were some great facilities including a marquee and benches and a charging point for devices.
I saw some Dutch cyclists and interrupted their dinner! Did they have any suggestions on how to get to Rotterdam with least climbing? A map/book was produced that simply advised following the Meuse river. In our discussion they kept saying it went to Maastricht. Who knew the Maas and the Meuse were the same river? Not me! This did have a profound affect on my progress to the ferry. The river cut straight through the Ardennes, albeit very windy, but flat.
So the campsite was a great experience but as we all settled down after 10pm there continued to be the sound of a diesel engine grumbling along, in the distance, under great strain. Why was it working so late on a Saturday night? My weariness and ear plugs won over. The next morning I noted there was a nearby chipboard plant (Unilin). I calculated that a shovel loader was moving logs into the hogger to make the chips (for the chipboard) in this 24/7 continuously running plant.
It did rain over night and I awoke to find a family of Brits had arrived. They were from Lincoln and were heading south in their camper van without much of a plan. They had come via Calais and had the demanding job of entertaining two small children for the duration.My plan was to continue north. The weather was bleak as I set off but there was no rain as I continued on a major highway.
There’s something dispiriting about camping or riding in the damp. Also I was missing that rest day that enabled some sorting out of kit as well as putting your feet up. Certainly this wasn’t a place to stay.
Eventually the sun started to come out and normal service was resumed weather-wise. This meant a change in tops and splashing on Factor 50. I took the opportunity to drag out a towel and a pair of shorts to hopefully dry them out. Sadly this also applied to the road that still went up and down!
I look at the map to assess the type of road, the distances between towns and to confirm I’m heading in the right direction. I’m never certain how far I’ll get but ordinarily the constraint of where the campsite is determines the destination.
I was following a road to Saint-Dizier but by this time had decided that Bar-le-Duc was my overnight stopping place. I try and eat every hour. Sometimes it can be a treat (see the photo). This is my favourite French confectionary.
I left the main road to run parallel on a B road. Some of the properties are delightful.It’s the coordinated paint scheme that elevates it. Also what French colours.
I had stayed in Bar-le-Duc before and whilst liking the camp site I was kept awake then by a couple of inconsiderate French lads who decided to have a Saturday night all nighter with music (here’s my 2018 blog). I parked my tent on a different part of the site.
This time there were no similar issues. I hadn’t cycled through the town last time and this time I discovered a sunny and busy high street with cafes and bars. A little too far to pop into from the site but worth noting for another visit. This is my plot below. On arrival the Reception was closed. I asked a Dutch couple what the arrangement was? They said the owner was cleaning the shower block. I found her and she said ‘put up your tent’ and see me later when I open up Reception. I did and the €6.20 was reasonable I thought.
However, it’s here that that Leeds United won promotion. Huddersfield Town beat West Bromwich Albion and ensured that we were up! I had a small bottle of wine to go with my baguette and fromage and I sat there texting excitedly and being delighted by the messages I received from old friends who knew my delight. A bit of an anti-climax really and I felt I should have been touring York, in the Morgan trailing my scarf with ‘Marching On Together’ blaring at Volume 11. The video was something I put onto Facebook as the deed was being done by our Yorkshire neighbours.
The original plan pre Coronavirus had been for Anna and myself to spend a week around Carcassonne and then she’d fly home and I’d cycle back. For various reasons Anna decided not to come and so in effect I arrived in Carcassonne and started cycling back. I point this out because a lot of the route, latterly, is known to me and hence the ‘passing through’ commentary. For example I well remember visiting Beaune with my brother in law, Bill, and his (and my pal), Peter. It was a memorable visit to Burgundy in 2006 with two blokes who knew and liked their wine and how to have a jolly time. Likewise Dijon was on my first long solo bike ride in 2011. It was baking and I stayed in a hotel to escape the heat: no such problems this time!
This time as I started the process of packing up my wet tent I fell into a conversation with a cycling Swiss lady who’d camped just along from me. She had a bivouac tent but pulled a small trailer. This trailer solution usually indicated you’re hauling a lot of things. She was, a dog. She also had loads of luggage hung from her bike and the pouch was caged in a box on the trailer. She was a similar age to me – young (cough). She was pedalling from Berne to Normandy to see her mother. However she was using an electric bike, clever girl (oops, sorry Katrina (FED), ‘woman’). It looked a very expensive bike and she had a range of 100 kilometres on one of the batteries.
Despite all this chatting I washed some kit. It would have to be packed wet. I hoped the weather would pick up or I’d find a tumble dryer.
The destination today was Chaumont. The weather was damp and grey. The terrain was slow rolling, that is you’d have a long swoop down 30 metres over a length of several hundred metres before the road rose again. You couldn’t get sufficient speed up to climb the coming hill and ended up twiddling the granny gears to breast the peak before it all started again.
Around lunchtime I pulled into a small town at the bottom of one of these rolling hills and found a ‘plat du jour’.
Inside was Nicholas. He was a Dutch psychologist who, after introductions, started a gentle investigation of the specimen in front of him. His story was more interesting. Thirty five years old and heading south with no plan. He had a business and team back in Utrecht but liked to wander and had some interesting stories about Iran, South America, Europe and, nearer, to home – Cornwall. I urged him to write them up. He had great insights.
In some ways he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders or maybe he was a serious guy. I doubt I helped. I asked if I may take his picture for my blog and with a grumpy face he accepted. By way of reciprocity he invited me to take another photograph of him but with his 35mm film camera. The camera weighed a lot, a troubling issue for any touring cyclist! He expected me to know how to focus it (as I was older than the camera). I struggled peering through the viewfinder with him remaining out of focus. After a few minutes I worked out the problem: I wasn’t wearing my spectacles and so it wouldn’t be in focus would it! This was hilarious and I caught a photo of him laughing! We said goodbye.
Heading north I found Langres was a walled city and I caught this one image of a bus trying to escape with difficulty.
The road was a major highway and the traffic was fast and regular. There was nothing to slow it down. With towns far apart then drivers always pick up their speed.
Chaumont eventually arrived and I found a laundromat. Another ‘Angel’ came to my help and I was helped on how to programme the tumble dryer. With dry clothes I was happy and my morale was restored.
The centre of Chaumont looked promising with a number of bars and restaurants. I have to say the French have a fatal addiction to pizza. Anywhere and in every size of town it seems they love their cheesy treats. It was no different here. Unfortunately after pitching my tent the bike ride back into town would have necessitated a murderous climb. I could live without a pizza.
The campsite was a municipal one. Basic, cheap and well placed. The woman on Reception managed to wind me up. The site had 60 pitches but with only four occupied. Instead of saying “pitch where you like” she allocated a pitch. I ended up some way from the shower block. When I remonstrated she feigned not to speak English and suggested my favoured pitch was too big for a little tent. True but as no one was there then why worry?
After the football euphoria of Leeds United beating Swansea then tonight was the ‘banana skin’ game, at home, against the bottom of the table team, Barnsley. Anna sent a text informing me that we were leading 1-0. I hadn’t realised they’d kicked off! Tim in York added ‘colour’ to the information I got from Twitter and with a lot of luck we held on. This virtually confirmed our promotion. I had no booze and no one to celebrate this with and it was still drizzling. Time for bed.
A familiar but unwelcome sound greeted me as I came to from my slumbers: rain hitting the window. It stood to reason that I’d hit rain eventually but it was a stark contrast to 44°C only days ago.
So gathering my rain gear I ventured out and went first to Le Clerc the large supermarket. I enquired of one employee “ou sont les cartes?” The young woman adopted the face someone would if you’d asked them to add 16.7431 to 324. 219567. Then all of a sudden the ‘darkness’ lifted, she smiled and she said “carrtzzz”? The mystery word had been deciphered and with this correct pronunciation she covered me in a light film of phlegm. This correction came along with a barrage of instructions that I vaguely interpreted to mean I should cross the road to another shop. Wiping my spectacles of this spittle I ventured across the road for the maps. Said map and new adaptor and cabled were acquired.
Eventually I was on my way and proceeding along a canal path. Funnily enough after not having seen any cycle tourers I quickly saw other burdened cyclists rolling toward me. Maybe this is the way normal people cycle tour?
I must mention that in addition to WW1 monuments to the fallen there are many WW2 monuments to fallen Resistance fighters.
So in overcast and drizzly weather I spent the morning on the canal. I soon saw the other tourers: grizzly bearded old men pulling trailers, energetic younger blokes racing behind each other, couples with the man usually carrying the bulk of their possessions etc. Clearly my use of the road and predilection for mountains was an exception amongst the breed.
I enjoyed the easy ride at pace and soon racked up 30 miles. At Chagny the canals split and I stopped for lunch and decided to leave the waterways behind and head to Beaune by road. Here is more ‘plat du jour’ for your scrutiny.
The drizzle and greyness gave way to torrential rain as I ate. The following picture was taken from under the canopy at the restaurant. I eventually had to venture out and fortunately it soon stopped as I entered the wines of Burgundy.
I passed through the capital of the region, Beaune, and everything seemed classy and manicured.
I’d decided to stay at a campsite in Dijon. Despite the size of the town there was little choice and as I was running late I got my head down. As I’m pedalling through a flat and traffic free area of farm land I heard a crack. I’d broken a spoke.
For the technically minded then… I carry spare spokes but I have never had a broken spoke, on all my trips, before. I was surprised and worried. The rear wheel was now bowed and would only rotate by rubbing the mudguard and frame. I also removed a break block but still it impeded rotation. I was 3 miles from the above famous town and I limped there terribly slowly. I could have been in a much worse location. I neither carried a socket to remove the rear cassette or spanner to get leverage and I didn’t carry a spoke tightener. I’ll have to think through future tools. With difficulty I found a bike shop and for €8 a mechanic replaced the spoke. He ‘trued’ the wheel as best he could but it wasn’t as accurate as I’d have liked.
Along a busy road I found a supermarket for some bits for dinner and then closed in on the campsite in the outskirts of Dijon. At this point the full contents of the Heavens tipped onto me. Oh, I have seldom been wetter. I was also chilled by the deluge.
I got to the campsite and on very wet ground put up the tent. Sadly a number of pieces of clothing in the panniers were sodden: I hadn’t secured the top well enough. I couldn’t dry anything and included were some items I’d wear to keep warm. Anyway I ate my dinner in my tent and checked the weather forecast for the next day before going to sleep.
So with 353 miles under my (reducing) belt I had breakfast, at the hotel, and was out into a very quiet Vichy. The reason for this comes later.
After the dilapidation of Thiers then the outskirts of Vichy were neat, tidy and cared for. I’m not enthusiastic about cycle paths but if this was to lead to Rotterdam then I might not complain. Rotterdam was to be my ultimate Continental destination. After badgering P&O (the ferry operator) on Twitter it appears that they will not be opening the Zeebrugge, Belgium route to tourists any time soon. I always suspected it didn’t make money as the ferry only ever seemed sparsely occupied on my many crossings. The pandemic has turned ‘bad’ into ‘disaster’ no doubt. As you can see below the suburbs were attractive and again spookily empty.
Before long I was away from the city and into the countryside. The brutal hills of the Massif Central were behind me but I was regularly climbing and accumulating impressive height gains (today was a bonkers 1,525m). You may think the following sign is a ‘red letter’ day. I think you’ll find most cycle tourers expect that ‘what goes down goes up’ and so it’s hard to enjoy this brief plummet. Even though I had been on the bike every day I think yesterday’s minimal riding had been restorative.
From terrible average speeds here I was nicely into double figures. Below is a canal path I cycled over. I would eventually have my time on them.
The eating plan is to have one hot meal a day and to eat whilst cycling as well. At night, on the campsite I’m always pressed for time and so maybe a whole baguette, a tomato and a large chunk of cheese might suffice (plus a cake if the boulangerie obliges). A French staple lunch time is ‘Plat Du Jour’. Many bars or restaurants do them. It’s reasonably priced, has little or no choice but is served quickly. The latter service is to accommodate the busy person who wants to be back behind his desk or shovel loader steering wheel. Here are three course and the bill I found at a restaurant:
The damage was reasonable, n’est pas?
Gone were the gorges or mountains but rolling hills. All were given over to cereal production. Now the day and lunch had made things idyllic and a good mileage was being achieved. However I identified Le Creusot as a place to stop over. I got there and there was no camping, a hostel or hotels that I could find. I was looking for smaller places. The reason for the latter lack of open hotels was because today was Bastille Day. It’s a bank holiday and a lot of things are shut. It is France’s National Day and it’s origins go back to storming this Paris fortress/prison in 1789 and was, in effect, the people rising up against the monarchy.
So using my Apps I’m all over town trying to find a roof over my head and time is elapsing. I ring Anna and ask her to book an Ibis hotel a further 14 miles south. This meant going backwards, not a happy activity but needs must.
A giant steel press at a roundabout. Love it.
Just before getting to the hotel I found some food. After this distance and being late I could have eaten a horse. Actually I have seen this meat on the menu. However, not at McDonalds.
Checking in to the Ibis was a trial. It had been paid for on line, by my bride, but they made me pay again. I had further meetings with other staff who spoke English, but I expect I’ll have to resolve something between Ibis, Amex and Booking.com when I get home.
I was happy to check out from Fawlty Towers and descend to Vichy. This would truly get me clear of the Massif Central (yippee). Before I left Thiers I saw one of many monuments, as seen all over France, to the fallen soldiers of WW1.
It’s still staggering to think despite the enormous human cost of this war to Western Europe (and the British Empire) that by 1939 another greater conflagration would take place. So breaking a golden rule of not cycling on a rest day I I pedalled into the spa town of Vichy and headed for Decathlon. The town is sat on the Allier river.
I had time to kill prior to check in at my new hotel and did some shopping at this sports retailer. At the checkout there was an automated till and frankly I couldn’t follow the signage and abandoned that option. The lady behind me in the queue saw me moving away from this machine and said something in French I didn’t understand. I was happy to queue elsewhere and said. “Merci, je suis Anglais”. She then just said “Aww mayte, I can help you”. Who knew that Australians could speak languages other than English? Anyway she helped me complete the transaction and I told her of my being in Australia in March and where I’d been. When I mentioned Melbourne she was gripped with horror and referred to the current lockdown there. I let it pass but Australia has only had 116 reported deaths but France has had over 30,000. I know which is safer.
So another rest day job is washing (properly) my kit. I would have liked to have included the kit I was wearing but a night in the cells was too high a price to pay, not least because Anna had already paid for a room. However I couldn’t easily fathom out how you got soap powder from one machine and paid in another and what you paid with – card, notes, coins… At this point a helpful lady grabbed my notes and gave me back some coins. Err, well she didn’t as she’d worked out I was a dork and so she bought the soap powder, put it in the machine and then programmed the machine and started it. Merci beaucoup! She could have been Ann Widdicombe’s sister…
This done and a sandwich consumed it was a time that I could check in. I loved the hotel although getting the bike into the lift was memorable.
(In fact I liked the hotel so much I donated, on my departure, a USB adaptor and iPhone charging cable). Later I drifted around the centre of the town and it was very much a relaxed spa resort.
However, the town has a dark history. It was the seat of the collaborationist French regime during WW2. When Germany occupied France in 1940 the north was occupied but the south or ‘Vichy France’ was allowed to run itself under German instruction until 1944 albeit with diminishing authority. The seat of government was placed in Vichy, not least because it had sufficient space to host this ‘government’. I imagine the options were limited for the French given the German victory but this government collected more Jews than was strictly necessary to satisfy the Nazis (only 3% survived the death camps) and was otherwise ultra conservative: divorce wasn’t legal! It also controlled the French fleet, which probably explains why Churchill sank it. To add to its troubled past then amongst the several towns they’re twinned with it includes Dunfermline.
However that is history. Today it is an attractive place and I hope to visit again.
Interestingly the weather was a lot cooler and I was quite chilly in the tent overnight. I’ve a lot of clothing solutions and if I know it’s coming then I can prepare. I didn’t (!) and kept waking up…doh.
The start was an unremarkable 270m climb. I just know it’s coming now and so do my legs. Lord knows what I did wrong in a previous life to deserve these climbs.
However despite this I was chipper because this was the last day before a ‘rest day’. The Central Massif was ending and whilst it was up and down the brutality diminished. I didn’t start with any breakfast but found a boulangerie en route for croissants and a very tasty quiche lorraine. You can see some customers disregarding wearing masks or keeping the required 1.5 metres let alone there only being two allowed in the shop. I’d say in bigger towns there is more interest in the masks. In the countryside it seems very optional.
I even found myself poodling along in a delightful gorge for the river Alagnon.
After following the river I had to leave it to go north east to reach Thiers. The change in direction meant a little more climbing and certainly less settlements. As I ground up through one small village I noted that there was a large flat area with many trees giving it shade. Beneath the trees were maybe 60 people at three large tables having a Sunday lunch. I think wine may have flowed because as I cycled past I drew a great response of cheering and clapping. I gave them the ‘Royal’ wave back.
I was otherwise some what on edge as Leeds United we’re away at Swansea City. I kept stopping every 10 minutes to check the score. At 80 minutes at 0-0 I lost a sufficiently good mobile signal to get updates. This coincided with my descent for 2 miles. As I’m in this delicious free fall I heard my phone go ‘plinky plinky plink plonk’. This is a WhatsApp message being received. I knew it must be Anna telling me Leeds had scored at the death. Coming to rest I had a sufficient signal to look at the App. Very thrilled!
So why Thiers? Well it looked a big town on the map and had some medieval buildings that maybe indicated it was an interesting day to spend a day off the bike at. The reality was a virtually abandoned hill side town with a thriving commercial life flourishing below. The hill side ‘centre ville’ must have been abandoned after the war and it really appeared quite derelict.
I expect that after WW2 people wanted better housing and the centre of time was antiquated. To add to this I imagine jobs migrated from the centre as well.
My hotel was expensive due to the lack of choice! Even more galling was that if I’d called in rather than book it on line I could have got my room at two thirds of the price.
The manager (and chef) was pleased to see me and ultimately hard to shake off! I was in need of a shower and he kept badgering me about all sorts in torrents of French. My retort of ‘la plume de ma tante‘ to everything he said confirmed, in his mind my complete mastery of French and so he rabbited on. The upshot was my agreement to dine in the hotel. In fact the wisest thing I did in Thiers. I went for a stroll had a quick beer and returned to a delightful treat:
I’m starting to think hotels now do stuff that’s not needed. A small provincial hotel has few staff and so who would answer, let alone, use the phone?
It was obvious that my ‘rest day’ in Thiers would be a waste. So tomorrow I’d pedal down the hill to Vichy.
As I’m washing my bidons (behave) in the morning a bloke at the next basin strikes up a conversation. You can tell he’s French as he has a moustache and is a millennial. Which other nationality wants to look like their great grandfather? Butchering the French language with my failed O Level French I tell him of my journey whilst he expresses awe and respect. I would have liked to have pointed out that last night’s beauty sleep was delayed because of him jibbering onto to his mate until past eleven. But it’s not British.
The first stop was Marvejols.
Quite a small but delightful spot very busy with a Saturday morning market. It still amazes me that the French would queue for various parts of small dead animals that you’d only contemplate consuming on ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’. So with a safer coffee and croissants consumed I left town and hoped the road would continue to be flat.
Nope. For the next couple of hours I climbed upwards by over 500m. Despite not getting the French O Level then I had more success with Self Pity and after reaching the top I was ready for the A Level. This is not the way to start a day.
So with this tiring start the next attraction was finding Chély d’Apcher. This attractive, yet industrial town is twinned with a local town to where we live, Tadcaster. We live 9 miles away. Tadcaster has three breweries but is frankly mainly a selection of empty shops, bakers, charity shops and down at heel pubs. It’s caught between two bigger cities and it’s glory days are well past. Twinning as a popular activity came about after WW2 between French and German towns as they attempted to heal the divisions. The towns usually have something in common. I could see no similarities here.
So onwards the road ran alongside the A75 motorway.
However, one notable detour was deep into a valley where this magnificent construction straddled the gap.
I left this valley needing crampons. Sadly I was truly shot. The mountains and miles before had rendered me totally depleted. I struggled into the nearby town of St-Flour and then staggered up another spiteful hill to a campsite nearby. (I’d climbed 1,222m today). I would always hope to ride further than this. After all the heat then today had been cooler mainly due to a constant headwind. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
The start was delightfully flat. My intention is head due North. As always it was warm and dry with a wonderful blue sky. Despite this great beginning I was jolted out my happy state by a brutal ascent to Compeyre. This was the usual uphill slog to a medieval village on top of a hill. Very quaint but not important so early in the day with so far to go.
I extracted myself from this small settlement and then consulted my ‘dangerously’ inaccurate Garmin for a direction north. It advised that this could be achieved with an immediate 1,000m climb. Funnily enough I thought differently and found myself cycling through the sensational Gorges du Tarn. The Tarn flows down this gorge enabling fabulous views and lots of canoeing. More to the point that whilst the road slowly rose it was virtually flat. The scenery was to die for.
The road had early 20th Century tunnels carved out.
The gorge sides towered over the river.
Along the route there were a few cyclists. One lady on an electric bike played leap frog with me as we stopped to take photos or in my case rummage around in my panniers for another energy bar. It goes without saying that I’ve not come across other cycle tourers on the trip so far.
The gorge ends at Sainte-Enimie. I stopped and had a cycle tour staple – omelette and chips (no photos because my phone was on charge, what do you mean we all know what fecking omelette and chips looks like?) There are a couple of ways out of the gorge. They both include 400m climbs. Yes, I know how to enjoy myself! Replete with a full stomach I began a slow ascent. I stopped at 200m up to take a shot of the recycling depot. Well, I didn’t really I had to call ‘FYD’ to give an opinion on engine size for the new car and it’s here I stopped.
The views were staggering.
I did get over the lip of the gorge at 900m only to find that I had another 100m to climb before the deserved descent. (The day racked up another 1,057m). Next was finding a campsite for the night. Looking at my selection of Apps I chose a place in the small town of Chirac. Much to my relief the Boulangerie in the town was open. I made vital purchases.
These campsites should be bursting on weekends but they’re empty. It really is the stay at home Dutch who’ve left the gaps. The site owners usually give instructions on check in where you can pitch but this year they all say ‘wherever you like’.
A real novelty was a picnic table. (I quickly appropriated that). Beside it was a barbecue. These are very unusual for anywhere but Australia. All this for €10.20 for the night.
With the likely admonishment of my Leeds Beckett University nutrition experts I knew I had to get some breakfast. Going north from Octon was a good start as it was handily placed (and beautiful).
I was quickly in Lodève and found some breakfast (and a working plug socket).
I had lost one of the pads that keep your spectacle lens off your nose. I luckily found an optician next door to the breakfast stop and popped in. They replaced the missing one gratis. How kind.
The way north today was difficult! There is now a motorway (A75) that everyone hops on and it takes them through the mountains. The step down in terms of road after this four lane joy is onto tortuous B roads.
This whole range of mountains I’m negotiating over several days are called the Massif Central and it is a large area. Today I couldn’t take the motorway and so consulting Google Maps, my Michelin paper map and my Garmin Sat Nav I could see no way but to go climbing. In fact I was sent up 600 metres in 35 to 40°C and the gradient averaged between 5 and 8%. It took me around 3 hours to complete 15 miles. The only traffic I saw were road repair contractors! The roads were on occasion ropey but it appears no one uses them apart from stupid Englishmen!
I pushed and pushed when the gradients went above 10%. Eventually I breasted the top and sped down to Le Caylar where I found shelter from the sun and a sandwich. In fact I sat in the cafe coming out of a heat haze. Overall for the day I climbed 909 metres; mainly in one ascent. The route now was to follow a service road beside the motorway. The destination was Millau. The town is famous for its bridge. This crosses the Tarn river and it’s tallest pillar is 343 metres, it’s the tallest bridge in the world. It was designed by a Frenchman and Norman Foster. It costs a lot of money as a toll bridge but I dare say they will be paying it off in decades time.
I had a wonderful descent into the town, by another road, and ended up in McDonalds at about 4.30pm. I thought this was a good evening meal solution. I have to say that their food is dreadful compared to years ago. I even had to chase an oik around the restaurant with my original fries… “froid, monsieur”.
There were a number of campsites; all next to each other. I chose a smaller less highly rated one. The more highly rated the more facilities and so more noise and excitable children.
After my chores I had a beer at the bar and kept tabs on Leeds United vs Stoke City by my sports app on my phone. 5-0, so pleased or relieved. Four gut churning games to go…